Note: scroll straight to the bottom of the post for recipe details.
I grew up in a vegetarian household during the 1980s and, like most adolescence, I was always hungry. The maddening lack of meatless options at friends’ houses and in Toronto’s diners led me to experiment in my tastes. As a result of my diet, I was usually left with starches to tied me over between home cooked meals.
And so, as a youngster in Toronto, I developed an affinity for substantial snacks, which gave potato and bread the lead role. In the Little India on Gerrard Street, there were plentiful samosas: deep-fried pockets of dough, packed with potatoes and peas heavily spiced with cumin and turmeric-laced curry powders. At Willow Fish and Chips on Queen Street East, there were thick, hand-cut fries tossed in salt and wrapped in newsprint, which I doused in malt vinegar and buried in a heap of glistening ketchup.
As I branched out into downtown, I found the strip of Chinese restaurants and bakeries on Dundas Street West between the art gallery and Spadina Avenue. Toronto’s first Chinese community had landed on their feet in The Ward, and after being pushed north by the construction of the new City Hall, the neighbourhood’s belly occupied the storefront’s along Dundas in the city’s original Chinatown.
I didn’t know I was having my first dim sum experience, as I entered the old Kim Moon Bakery at 438 Dundas. When Howard Wong opened the restaurant in the 1970s, it was the largest Chinese bakery in the city. But by the time I found my seat, the upstairs dining room was a ghost of its former self. Through the sliding doors, past the bakery display case full of moon pastries, and a steel dumb waiter with a port hole, there was an unadorned dining room. Elderly Chinese men in weathered sport coats read the Apple Daily and South China Morning Post, drank Hong Kong milk tea, and let ash accumulate on the cigarettes that burned black worms along Kim Moon’s red-belted side plates. A paper menu was delivered to my table with a stub-nosed pencil, and a love affair began, as soon as I saw the prices: buns and pastries were a dollar, dim sum items set you back between $2 for a Small, and $4.50 for a Large. I ignored the Extra Large and Specialty items, which were out of my price range.
The free jasmine tea (茉莉花茶) , stuffed eggplant (煎釀茄子) — I was too naive then to realize the filling had shrimp and/or seafood– , turnip cakes (蘿蔔糕), and red bean pastries (红豆酥 ) became regular after school snacks. But it was the spring onion pancakes (葱油饼), Cong You Bing, that kept me coming back for years afterward. They were cheap, crunchy, filling, and once slathered in black vinegar, soy sauce and chilli paste, they fulfilled all the basic requirements: salty, sweet, sour and spicy.
Around the corner, at the first location of Mother’s Dumplings on Huron Street, I truly came to understand what Cong You Bing could become with the right tough. I was studying History at the University of Toronto, and living up the street in a basement matchbox at the Epitome Apartments, when I made the big switch. Unlike the notebook-thin, cracker like pancakes served at Kim Moon, Mother’s was (and still is) serving scallion pancakes similar to those you’ll find stacked on the trays of vendors in the streets of Shanghai — almost like ‘grabbed flatbreads’, zhua bing (手抓饼). By my undergraduate years, I was deep into the delights of an omnivore’s diet, and the ground meat stuffing at Mother’s added a new layer of complexity to an old favourite, keeping me wedded to the simple appetizer.
The recipe below will render a much thicker, crunchier, and flakier pastry, which actually has a bit of spice to it, lent by a quick paint on of a roux-like wash, “yo sue”. But enough with the backstory, see the recipe below for further details.
Scallion Pancakes Recipe – Cong You Bing (葱油饼)
Makes 6 pancakes, serves 4 to 6 people
- Peanut or vegetable oil, on hand
- 2 bunches of green onion/scallions, finely chopped greens
- (Optional) 200 grams of ground pork
- 350 grams of Chinese flour (low protein/gluten content)
- 250 ml boiling water
SEASONING PASTE (YO SUE)
- 70 grams Chinese flour
- 15 grams sea salt
- 15 grams of ground Chinese five spice
- 60 grams lard/butter, melted
- 30 grams of peanut/vegetable oil
- In a large mixing bowl, form a well in the flour and start adding boiling water, little by little. Slowly incorporate the water into flour, using chopsticks, two butter knives, or a food processor.
- Once a dough ball has formed, turn out and knead gently on an oiled working surface, trying not to add more flour unless absolutely necessary.
- Once the dough is tensile, oil its smooth surface, and cover in plastic wrap. Let rest for half an hour, as glutens activate and work their magic.
- In a smaller bowl, make paste by mixing flour, salt and Chinese five spice. Add melted fat and oil and beat until a smooth, glossy paste forms. It should look like an egg wash.
- Portion dough into 6 balls, and cover remaining dough balls with a moist tea towel while you form pancakes, one by one.
- Press the ball into a flat rectangle with the palm of your hand. Pinch one end of the rectangle, and give your wrist a quick flick, to slap the dough onto your work surface and stretch it thin. Slap dough repeatedly, until you have a 20cm long, almost transparently thin strip, roughly as wide as your hand. If the prospect of dough slapping is too much for your gentle soul, use a rolling pin. But make sure to get the dough to 3 or 4 mm in thickness– roughly as thick as leather belt.
- Coat one-side of the rectangle with seasoning paste, then roll up a small handful of pork/scallion into a short, fat tube, and pinch off the ends.(Refer to the picture above for a visual reference) Repeat with each portion until you have 6 balls of spiralled dough filled with scallions, pinched closed on the sides.
- Heat pan/wok over high flame, add a thick coating of cooking oil, then place all six balls in the hot oil and gently press flat with the back of your spatula. Fry until golden and crusty on each side, pressing thinner with each flip of the pancake.
- For an extra crispy pancake, place the pancakes on a rack in a hot oven or toaster oven for 5 to 10 minutes at 180C, and let the excess fat bake off. This mimics the use of the drying rack inside the charcoal ovens street vendors use in Shanghai.
- Eat’em while they’re hot!
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